Alabama Crimson Tide: Nick Perry
What’s new: The coaching staff has gone under some serious reconstruction. In fact, it looks a lot like Nick Saban’s staffs of old with Kevin Steele as the linebackers coach and Bo Davis as the defensive line coach. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart moved back to coaching the secondary to allow for Steele’s return. And let’s not forget the one new face on the staff, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. You might have heard of him.
On the move: When Saban last spoke to the media a week ago, he said there was “no news on who’s playing what position and who the quarterback is.” But there will be movement. Look for some tweaking in the defensive backfield this spring. Much like last year,when Saban asked offensive players Dee Hart, Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones to try their hand at cornerback, he might ask someone like ArDarius Stewart to see if a return to defense is in order. Considering the lack of depth at cornerback and the departure of safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, the coaching staff might need to plug some holes in the secondary with some surprise players.
New faces: Aside from the handful of early enrollees fresh out of high school, there are four junior college transfers to watch, including the return of former Alabama defensive end D.J. Pettway. There’s also tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith, who was at Georgia once upon a time and could add to the passing game behind O.J. Howard; defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who could help plug the middle at 315 pounds; and offensive tackle Dominick Jackson, who was ranked as the No. 1 player at his position and could challenge to replace Cyrus Kouandjio.
Question marks: We’ve detailed the problems in the secondary and hinted at the battle at left tackle, leaving a major unanswered question as to who replaces C.J. Mosley on defense. The former All-American linebacker was the heart and soul of the unit. We know Trey DePriest wants to take on the role, but is he ready? And who will play alongside him at inside linebacker? Reuben Foster was an immensely talented linebacker coming out of high school -- with a dramatic recruitment, no less -- but he played mostly on special teams as a freshman. He’ll have a lot of competition for playing time, with Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland hoping to emerge.
Key battle: Unfortunately, this one won’t be solved until the fall. But that makes the battle no less important. Alabama needs to find a starting quarterback to replace AJ McCarron, and until that’s resolved, it’s priority No. 1. Jacob Coker, the Florida State transfer, won’t arrive on campus until May. So that leaves a bevy of unproven options under center. Blake Sims will get his shot after backing up McCarron last year, but it remains to be seen how the run-first athlete will do as a pocket passer. Beyond Sims, there’s rising sophomore Alec Morris and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod. If one stands out this spring, he’ll surely have the upper hand come fall and could challenge the presumed frontrunner, Coker.
Breaking out: It was a process started at the Sugar Bowl that many Alabama fans hope will continue right on into his sophomore season. Derrick Henry didn’t do much during the regular season, carrying the ball a total of 28 times. But all you’ll remember is the bowl game and his eight carries and one reception against Oklahoma, accounting for 161 yards and two touchdowns. He’s big (try 6-3 and 238 pounds) and he’s deceptively fast. With dreadlocks that stick out from under his helmet, picture a stretched out Trent Richardson. After losing a large chunk of practice last spring to a broken leg, he’ll have the benefit of a full offseason to climb the depth chart and nip at the heels of incumbent starter T.J. Yeldon.
Don’t forget about: Don’t sleep on Yeldon. He’s pretty darn good, with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons to start his career. But don’t forget Alabama’s depth at wide receiver. Whoever starts at quarterback will have plenty of receivers to throw to. Amari Cooper, who is among the best in the SEC when healthy, is just the tip of the iceberg. DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are two veteran pieces, and tight end O.J. Howard has the potential to be one of the disruptive offensive weapons in the league if he reaches his potential. Given the way Alabama has recruited of late, look for one or two blue-chip prospects to emerge. Chris Black has been waiting patiently, and Robert Foster seems poised to step up with a year of experience under his belt.
All eyes on: There’s going to be a quarterback competition, position battles and several new players will emerge. But keep an eye on Alabama’s attitude. Saban’s dynasty in Tuscaloosa was shaken but not entirely derailed last season. Losing the final two games, to Auburn and Oklahoma, in such unspectacular fashion hurts. The question is how Alabama will respond. It worked out well after the 2010 season, but this isn’t the same team. There are quite a few leaders in need of replacing, and there might be something to McCarron’s criticism that a five-star sense of entitlement crept into the program. Righting the ship won’t be easy for Saban and his staff, but he will have the luxury of putting a gigantic chip on his players’ shoulders this offseason. How they respond is up to them.
His father, Sal, has been an assistant coach in the NFL and in college for nearly three decades. His brother, Tino, was a quarterback at Pittsburgh before joining the Canadian Football League in 2013. And his coach, Nick Saban, has guided countless players to the pros and understands the draft process as well as anyone could.
So what was the hurry?
Sunseri has always been one to fly to the ball with reckless abandon. It's what made him a star on special teams as a freshman and a key contributor in the defensive secondary as a sophomore and junior. Before going down with a torn ACL against Arkansas this season, he had two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns. ESPN thought enough to vote him a Midseason All-American.
Maybe that instinct to attack and make something happen is at play here. We all know the draft is a gamble -- go early and you risk it, go late and you risk it just the same -- so Sunseri opting to roll the dice might not be out of character. If he thinks he should strike while the iron is hottest, then best of luck. He's a limited player athletically and sometimes struggles in coverage, but he's as hard a worker as they come and has a nose for the football.
From Alabama's perspective, though, the move is troubling.
The most immediate question -- "Are you running from Tuscaloosa or toward the NFL?" -- isn't readily answered. With so much up in the air this offseason, from coaching staff changes to other underclassmen turning pro, could it have influenced his decision?
Sunseri was the heartbeat of the secondary, its most vocal leader and its best playmaker. He would have been one of the centerpieces of the defense next season. He and Landon Collins playing side by side at safety would have been a good starting point for defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to build around. Mixing in veterans Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry would have been plenty to work with, helping relieve some of the pressure off of Alabama's young set of cornerbacks.
Now Alabama is left with more questions than answers. Losing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at free safety was hard enough. Sunseri vacating his spot at strong safety only makes matters worse. Collins showed he's an immensely talented player this season, finishing second in tackles and first in passes defended, but he's still raw. We saw that in a few key missteps against Auburn to end the regular season and then again against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Granted, Collins will improve, but Alabama will need another player or two to step up and fill Sunseri's shoes.
The silver lining for Saban is he's not without talented players to call upon. Former four-star corner Geno Smith made the transition to safety this past season and former professional baseball player Jai Miller should be better prepared after a season of re-acclimating to the game. Welcoming in two early enrollee defensive backs -- five-star cornerback Tony Brown and No. 2-rated safety Laurence "Hootie" Jones -- will help in terms of depth, too.
But make no mistake, Alabama is in transition. As curious a move as it was for Sunseri to turn pro early, it leads to just as puzzling questions for the Tide moving forward. There are the right coaches in place to make it work -- men like Saban, Smart and others -- but it doesn't make the events any less surprising.
Here's what we'll be watching when the top-ranked Crimson Tide get back to SEC play against the 21st-ranked Rebels.
Think positive: Nick Saban wants everyone to think happy thoughts. Alabama's coach has seen the frustration of the fan base permeate the locker room, and he doesn't like it. "The big thing we need, everyone needs," he said Wednesday, "is a lot of positive energy and to be excited about the challenges this team has." That is, the challenge of living up to its championship expectations. "They need to be supported and everybody doesn't need to sit around and say, 'Ah, what's wrong with these guys?'" Saban added. With that in mind, pay attention to the Crimson Tide’s body language and the attitude. If expectations really are getting to these players and this program, it will inevitably show on the football field.
Shore up the secondary: Nick Perry wasn't the be-all and end-all to the Alabama secondary, but the senior safety was one of the most veteran contributors and a calming force on the back end of the defense. Perry stands to miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery, robbing Saban of a piece of the defense he could sorely afford to lose. Thankfully for the coach, though, Deion Belue appears to be ready to go after sitting out last week's game, which gives the Tide back its top on-ball defender. Now Alabama must find some complementary parts. John Fulton, who was manhandled by Mike Evans and Texas A&M a few weeks ago, didn't start until the second half against CSU. He's a question mark. So is Cyrus Jones, who continues to show some growing pains after transitioning from offense this offseason. Saban said a freshman would have started had Belue not been able to go. Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson, the two likeliest rookies to play, learned a lot against CSU, but they're nonetheless shaky with such little experience. They likely will be leaned on regardless, as Ole Miss likes to spread out on offense with Donte Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan on the outside, Laquon Treadwell in the slot, and Evan Engram split out at tight end.
Establish the running game: Sixty-six yards isn't going to cut it, not in Alabama's offense, which is still predicated on the ability to run the football. The Crimson Tide mustered just 66 yards rushing against a Colorado State team that came into the game allowing an average of 160 yards on the ground per game. AJ McCarron said earlier this week how this year's team is different, how it might not be a run-first team. Although that appears to be true, Alabama still must have some measure of success running the football. Too much of offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier's scheme is dependent on working off of play-action. If the Tide offense isn't balanced, it simply won't work. Against an Ole Miss team that gives up just 114.3 yards per game on the ground (29th nationally) and 3.09 yards per carry (21st nationally), it should be even tougher sledding for Alabama. T.J. Yeldon & Co. don't necessarily have to run for last season's average of 227.5 yards per game, but getting over the 100-yard plateau would do wonders for the success and consistency of the offense as a whole.
Win third down: Because of that lackluster running game, third down has become increasingly difficult for Alabama. Second-and-long has led to third-and-long, which has led to a lot of punts. UA ranks 98th nationally and next to last in the SEC by converting one of every three third-down attempts. That number shrinks even further when it's third-and-7 or more to go. Although it's hard for any team to convert on third-and-long, Alabama can do itself some favors and pick up positive yards on first down and stay ahead of the sticks.
Tempo, tempo, tempo: It's the biggest thing that can take defensive players out of their rhythm, according to Saban, who said that communication and a sense of urgency are important against teams such as Ole Miss that like to push the tempo on offense. "When they go speed ball or hurry up and run a play really fast in 8 seconds," Saban said, "you barely have time to get lined up." Basically, it gets a defense out of whack by getting players out of position and making it difficult for the right play to get called in and relayed to everyone on the field. And Ole Miss does as good a job as anyone at creating that confusion with Bo Wallace upping the pace at quarterback whenever possible. He and running back Jeff Scott can go read-option and shake up the defense effectively. Alabama got a good dose of tempo against Texas A&M a few weeks ago, which should prepare the defense for what it will see Saturday, but, until the bullets start flying, it's hard to tell what the response will be.
Then Kevin Norwood, who started 11 games at wide receiver last season, followed them out of the tunnel, wearing the same crimson pants and sneakers. He too would miss the game.
Alabama coach Nick Saban had said throughout the week to expect some younger players to get a chance to compete Saturday, but we had no idea it would go like it did. The offense struggled to move the ball with any consistency and the secondary, already reeling from a poor performance against Texas A&M the week before, was put to the test with so many players sidelined with injuries.
Very little was expected from reserve cornerbacks Bradley Sylve and Eddie Jackson coming into the season, and yet there they were being announced over the P.A. system in Bryant-Denny Stadium as starters in the home opener. The near-capacity crowd cheered, but only wearily, unsure of anything to expect other than the color of the jerseys. Jackson, a true freshman, hadn't played a single snap in the first two games of the year. Sylve, who had all of six tackles a season ago, hadn't been in on a single stop this year.
John Fulton, the only senior available in the secondary, didn't play until the second half as the staff opted instead to try out youngsters like Jackson, Sylve, Maurice Smith, Cyrus Jones and Geno Smith.
The results were predictable. Colorado State played on Alabama's youth, hitting up the defense for a number of big gains, 10 plays going for 10 or more yards, including four of which that went for 20-plus yards. Rams coach Jim McElwain, a former offensive coordinator at Alabama, was able to move the ball downfield almost at ease, dinking and dunking the defense with screens and misdirection plays when it didn't go for the deep pass from quarterback Garrett Grayson.
It was death by a million paper cuts as UA allowed more yards to a sub-.500 Mountain West team (279) than it did in all but five games last season. Five SEC teams and Big 10 powerhouse Michigan had less success against the Tide defense in 2012.
"Well, they all made mistakes," Saban said of his young corners. "Their little bit of lack of experience shows up like [when CSU] hit that little x-screen with the halfback blocking the corner about three times for first downs, and I don't know that we've ever given up a first down on that play. It wasn't played correctly."
Landon Collins, a sophomore, is still learning the ins and outs of Saban's defense at safety. And yet on Saturday he was the veteran voice in the secondary, calming down his even more inexperienced teammates.
"Just a lot of new guys on the field," Collins said. "We've got to figure out what to do. They're going to be some great players when they come down to it and know what they really have to do.
"I told them just be calm. It's a fast game. Everything's going to slow down after a while."
If Saban wanted to find someone capable of joining the cornerback rotation this season, that player didn't appear to emerge Saturday. The job of starting opposite Belue might return to Fulton, who has been underwhelming thus far, or Jones, who is still experiencing some growing pains at the position after playing wide receiver last season.
With Ole Miss coming to town this weekend, whoever wants the job must step up now. The Rebels, which average 490 yards and 38 points per game, can make a veteran defense look bad. As UA linebacker C.J. Mosley said of the mistakes made Saturday, "Some of those little things will get us beat next week."
"We played about five guys at corner, just kind of rotated them in there with the idea that we're going to see if somebody can play the position with any kind of consistency and do their assignment and do their job," Saban said after the game. "That's an area we need to do better in. It'd certainly be helpful if we get Deion back."
If Alabama doesn't get Belue back, it could be in trouble. Another game like the one against CSU could blow a hole in the Tide's championship hopes.
"The players have to do what the coaches do, and that's the point," he said before launching into a narrative about civil disobedience, wrapped around what's becoming a borderline obsession with dog owners failing to keep their pets on a leash (he used the same "Nobody wants to be obedient now" rant the week before the game as well).
“No matter how many times you tell someone, ‘Look, son. Don’t touch the stove. It’s hot,’ ” he said, lamenting the fact that they always have to see for themselves. “Once they touch it and get burned, then they start saying, ‘Huh, maybe I’ll listen to this guy. Maybe Dad knows what he’s talking about.’ So, I think a lot of lessons were learned in this game.
"So now, when you say, 'Don't drop your hands when you're playing bump and run,' and the guy does it 15 times in a game against me, now you'll see why you were telling him. If you've told a guy 100 times to get in the middle of the field and he doesn't get there, now you can see what happens when he doesn't get there. No different than touching the stove. Same old thing."
Alabama ought to have learned its lesson against Texas A&M. The memory should be seared into every player's skull by now. If the game didn't do it, then surely the film review did.
Though Johnny Manziel and the Aggies are certainly one of the best offenses in the country, that does little to explain the staggering inefficiency of the defense as whole. The same defense that allowed the fewest plays of 10 or more yards per game (8.42) and the fewest passing touchdowns (eight) a season ago was gashed for five passing touchdowns and 20 plays of 10 or more yards as Texas A&M racked up the most total yards allowed by an Alabama defense in school history (628).
The Manziel-to-Mike Evans combination couldn't be stopped. "It's a combination of both guys' strengths that make a difficult matchup," Saban tried to explain, citing Manziel's speed and Evans' overwhelming size. Saban used at least three different defensive backs on Evans, not counting the double coverage over the top, and still, the 6-foot-5 sophomore racked up a career high 279 yards receiving. Manziel was Manziel again, evading the grasp of pass-rushers left and right while exploiting every hole in the secondary to throw for a career-high 464 yards.
And that was supposed to be the game Alabama's defense had figured out, aided by an offseason of study and an extra bye week to prepare.
Instead, the Crimson Tide were torched on national television and sent back to the drawing board in search of answers.
"We've tried to play the more experienced guys," Saban said, "especially in these first two games, because they're tough games. Everybody's had an opportunity.
"Now, we're just going to ... need to compete better. And it's not just the corners now, the safeties weren't where they were supposed to be in the game some, too."
With starting cornerback Deion Belue questionable to play against Colorado State this weekend, the competition is wide open. Saban said two freshmen are in position to see the field more, and based on practice, it looks like Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson are the two in line for an early opportunity. Bradley Sylve, a redshirt sophomore, has been mentioned as another possible replacement in the cornerback rotation as well.
Geno Smith, who started at nickel as a freshman late last season, was supposed to be a part of that mix, but after being arrested for a DUI during the preseason, suspended for a game and sent to the bottom of the depth chart, even he's fighting to get back into the mix. For now, veteran Jarrick Williams is holding down his spot just fine.
"Geno's got to beat somebody out. He lost his job," Saban said. "Jarrick's played really well. So, I mean, nobody has a rite of passage here just because you played in two games last year, 'I'm guaranteed my job.' If you do the right things and you play well, nobody gets your job."
In fact, Williams might be the only bright spot in the Alabama secondary after last week's game. He held down the slot receiver well and had it not been for his tipped pass, Vinnie Sunseri's interception return for a touchdown never would have happened.
"He's been unbelievable," Sunseri said. "Jarrick has done exactly what we've asked him to do. He's had great coverage, been really physical at the point of attack and just been a real sound defensive player at that star position. I can't express how happy I am for him to get the opportunity and take advantage of it like he's been able to."
Williams, for his part, tried to stay positive about the game, saying that the mental errors and mistakes against Texas A&M were "nothing we can't fix." Asked whether the game was a letdown, he said simply, "No, sir."
"I think we're just going to get on there and keep on fighting."
Saban may still be fuming over the coverage breakdowns and big plays, but the players seemed to have moved on.
CSU coach Jim McElwain has, too. The former Alabama offensive coordinator went up against Saban's defense in practice from 2008-11, and he's not buying any theory of a downward trend. In his mind, Texas A&M was merely an outlier.
"People are going to say whatever about the Texas A&M yardage, but there's going to be a lot of people who give yardage up to that guy," he said, citing the one they call Johnny Football. "Yet, they were in position numerous times, right? So I truly believe that was simply a little blip on the radar."
During the course of the action, a few players stood out as worthy of a coveted helmet sticker.
QB AJ McCarron: Can we put the "game manager" debate to rest once and for all? Game managers don't throw for 334 yards and four touchdowns, which is exactly what McCarron did against Texas A&M on Saturday. Just when it looked like the Crimson Tide was ready to fall irretrievably behind the Aggies, McCarron calmed the troops and brought Alabama back from the dead. He was confident, poised and decisive on Kyle Field. In other words, he was the leader of a championship-caliber football team.
S Vinnie Sunseri: Remember how many people asked loudly and profusely how on Earth Vinnie Sunseri could start at safety over Landon Collins and Nick Perry? Oh, good times. Sunseri might not be the athlete of his fellow defensive backs, but he sure makes plays. The junior safety once again showed a nose for the football, retrieving a tipped pass for an interception and taking it all the way down the football field for a score. He could go down as the only player to make Johnny Manziel miss, too, hitting Texas A&M's quarterback with a juke move that sent him flying out of his way.
The entire offensive line: They heard how underwhelming they were for two full weeks. It got to the point where AJ McCarron was fed up and told reporters that the criticism of his offensive line ticked him off. Well, after Saturday, all those complaints will be put to rest. Alabama's offensive line did a complete 180 degree turn, imposing its will on Texas A&M's front seven. They protected McCarron and got the running game going in a big way. Alabama wound up rushing for 234 yards and throwing for 334 more. And more importantly, there were just one tackles for loss and no sacks on the day.
"If I were you, I wouldn't make to much of the depth chart we released," Alabama's head coach warned during Monday's news conference. "It's a chore for me to do that, it really is. I know it's important to you so we wanted to provide you with something. But don't ask me questions cause I'm telling you now, it's for you. The depth chart isn't for our team, it's for you so you can have it, write about it and talk about it. You made me do a depth chart when I didn't want to do one. So that's how I'm going to answer you."
Kenyan Drake, the team's third-leading rusher and a top candidate to back up starting tailback T.J. Yeldon this fall, wasn't even on it. Instead, Jalston Fowler was listed as the No. 2 back with Dee Hart, Derrick Henry and Altee Tenpenny listed as co-No. 3 at the position. Why Drake was missing is anyone's guess. Saban hasn't said a word on the subject and because the depth chart was handed out after his regular Monday press conference, no one could ask.
"T.J. certainly is a guy that has played a lot and has experience," Saban said. "I think Jalston Fowler is another guy who's played a lot and had experience. He's going to play a dual role in this game. He'll play some running back, some H-back. Dee Hart is a guy that's played some who will have some situational playing opportunities in this game as well.
"I think that there's probably two of the freshmen that have sort of -- I think they're all good. Kamara had an injury, so he missed a while. He'll be back practicing today, but it's hard to get him ready to play this game right now. Tyren Jones did a good job in the last scrimmage, but really Altee and Derrick Henry have gotten the most reps and are probably the most prepared to be able to play right now."
The offensive line came in as expected with Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle, Arie Kouandjio alongside him at left guard, Ryan Kelly at center and Anthony Steen and Austin Shepherd at right guard and right tackle, respectively.
AJ McCarron was the obvious first-team quarterback and Blake Sims his assumed second in line, but it was curious that Alec Morris was not listed as the third option off the bench.
Former starter Xzavier Dickson will share his starting duties with true sophomore Denzel Devall at Jack linebacker, but that move was expected with Dickson spending some time at defensive end this fall.
The rest of the starting linebackers remained the same with C.J. Mosley at Will, Trey DePriest at Mike and Adrian Hubbard at Sam.
Vinnie Sunseri ultimately won the starting job at strong safety opposite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on paper, but the move was mostly superficial as both Landon Collins and Jarrick Williams will spend time there as well. Nick Perry, one of two seniors in the secondary, is slated to back up Clinton-Dix at free safety.
All told, 11 true freshmen made the two-deep, though none are projected to start: nose guard A'Shawn Robinson, defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster, cornerback Maurice Smith, offensive tackle Grant Hill, tight end O.J. Howard, receivers Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster, long snapper Cole Mazza and tailbacks Henry and Tenpenny.
Preparation for Virginia Tech didn't begin until Thursday afternoon, when the second half of the brief media viewing portion of practice came with the condition that cameras not film the proceedings. For the first time, there was something coaches weren't willing to show the outside world.
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The season opener against Virginia Tech is less than two weeks away and Alabama's first-team defense is coming into view. The combinations Saban will employ are numerous, mixing and matching his way to the best group of 11 on the field in any given situation. There are a few common denominators: All-American C.J. Mosley rarely leaves the field at inside linebacker, Deion Belue and John Fulton have been regulars at cornerback, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has played the vast majority of reps at free safety, falling back like a center fielder would in baseball.
"Landon's at the top of the peak right now," Clinton-Dix said of the burgeoning youngster he has helped develop under Saban. "He's doing very well, run conflict, pass conflict, he can cover it. He's very physical. So he's doing a great job for us right now."
Collins might not begin the season a starter, but by year's end he could be right on Sunseri and Perry's heels. As Clint0n-Dix said early in fall camp, the competition has been anything but cordial.
"It's nothing friendly," he said. "It's camp. It's everybody by themselves, just trying to compete for a job. All of us are great. You just gotta find that one inch you can to pull ahead of someone else."
After three weeks of trying, there hasn't been much separation. All three have seen the field, albeit in a variety of ways. Sunseri has played the most strong safety of the bunch, but he has dropped down and played nickel, or "star" as Saban describes it, allowing either Perry or Collins to play alongside Clinton-Dix on the back end of the defense.
Depending on the situation, all four safeties can be on the field at the same time.
"The way the defense is set up we have a lot of DBs who play at one time," Clinton-Dix said. "We have seven on the field at one time, six, five, you can play with them a lot, so you just find your role on this team."
Jarrick Williams, often a forgotten man at safety thanks to a season-ending knee injury last year, has joined in on the action as well. With Geno Smith suspended, Williams has been playing with the first team some at star.
As Mosley put it, Williams has his "chance to shine."
"Jarrick Williams has had a fantastic camp so far and is going to get some opportunity to play this year," Saban said. "We’re excited about it. He really feels comfortable and confident in what he’s doing. He’s playing in nickel and dime and also in safety, so he’s got a lot of multiple roles on the team and he’s really done a good job."
If Williams becomes a regular with the first team, there's no telling how many safeties will play on defense for the Tide this season. The cornerbacks might get jealous.
But if one thing is certain, it's this: Saban will devise a way to make the most of what he has. Pawn or knight, rook or bishop, he doesn't care. If he has the pieces, he's going to play the game the way he sees fit.
"We can't have complacency," he said. "Can't be satisfied with where we are. … Can't have selfishness on the team because that will fracture the team chemistry. We can't lose our accountability and attention to detail. Those three things right there are very important in us being the kind of team we're capable of being. Everybody's got to make that choice and decide are they willing to do the things they need to do to do it."
"He's never been in trouble here before, never been in my office for anything," Saban said, "but I think this is something that everybody should learn from that when you make a bad choice, sometimes the consequences of that choice can really have a negative effect. Some of these guys don't have enough foresight to understand cause and effect, but Geno has been a really good person in the program and just made a choice, bad decision. Made several of them, so now he's got consequences for it."
Smith, a former four-star prospect who came on late last year as a freshman, was expected to log significant minutes this season as the team's nickel back. Against teams like Virginia Tech who like to spread the field with multiple receivers, he would have played a big part of the Tide's defense, matching up against the slot receiver.
Now, Alabama must go back to the drawing board to determine who can fill his vacancy during the suspension. With Deion Belue and John Fulton projected to start as boundary corners, it falls to sophomores Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve to step up among the cornerbacks. Jones shifted to defense from wide receiver this year and has looked promising at the position, which he played in high school.
But the intriguing, and more likely option, is for Saban to utilize his depth at safety and bring down someone like Nick Perry, Vinnie Sunseri, Jarrick Williams or Landon Collins to play nickel, or "star" as Saban describes it. To get an idea of all the different combinations that are possible, take a look at what Saban said of the star and money positions in early April.
"Geno's been playing star, Vinnie can play star -- he played it all last year," Saban said. "Geno did it for the last three or four games of the season. Vinnie's been playing money, Landon Collins has been playing money, Jarrick Williams has been playing money, which is what he was before he got hurt. We've been trying to develop somebody other than Vinnie. Nick Perry can play star. We don't really have another corner that can play star. Also, Jarrick Williams is playing star. We have more multiples of guys right now than we had a year ago."
The options, clearly, are there. The problem, though, is that while Alabama is deep at safety, it's thin in terms of true cornerbacks. Signing Anthony Averett, Jonathan Cook, Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith in February helped, but a freshman learning curve is inevitable. Given Saban's complicated defense, it's hard for rookies to see the field early. Hence, Geno Smith not coming on until late last year.
"First of all, opportunity is important, to have an opportunity to do that," Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart explained. "[It takes a] very conscientious kid to understand, 'Hey, I got to know this defense inside and out, I got to know all the checks, I got to know all the motions and checks, I got to know all the adjustments.' You've got to be very conscientious to do that, but you've got to have some ability. It's very easy for us to find those guys out there. When we recruit good players, they usually stick out as freshmen. We find ways to get them on the field and always have in some kind of role."
Coach: Nick Saban (154-55-1 overall, 63-13* at Alabama)
2012 record: 13-1 (7-1)
Key losses: C Barrett Jones, LG Chance Warmack, RB Eddie Lacy, NG Jesse Williams, CB Dee Milliner, S Robert Lester
Key returnees: QB AJ McCarron, LB C.J. Mosley, LT Cyrus Kouandjio, RG Anthony Steen, WR Amari Cooper, RB T.J. Yeldon, CB Deion Belue, DL Ed Stinson
Newcomer to watch: TE/H O.J. Howard
Biggest games in 2013: Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, LSU
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Saban is the first to admit the secondary is a "work in progress" after losing his shutdown cornerback and three-year starter at safety. The seventh-year head coach tried shifting running back Dee Hart and wideouts Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones to cornerback, but only Cyrus stuck on defense. The former four-star athlete will be a much-needed option off the bench behind projected starters Deion Belue and Geno Smith. Depth isn't quite a concern on the back end, though, as Saban can mix and match veterans Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry with former No. 1 safety prospect Landon Collins. In a year where the SEC is arguably the strongest quarterback conference in the country, it's vital that Saban stabilize his passing defense.
Forecast: What Alabama is attempting to do this season borders on the impossible. History dictates the Tide fall short of another national championship, but the talent assembled in Tuscaloosa, Ala., dictates otherwise. Despite losing nine starters to the NFL, Alabama is in good position for a three-peat thanks to back-to-back No. 1-ranked recruiting classes and six straight top five finishes overall.
But it's not just new faces like Reuben Foster and Derrick Henry that give Tide fans hope. They're simply the icing on a cake that already features a league-best 16 preseason All-SEC selections. The offense is loaded with a Heisman Trophy-caliber backfield and a wide receiver corps that's deeper and more talented than at any point in recent memory. The defense should be in good shape, too, with All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley back for his senior year and Butkus Award hopeful Adrian Hubbard poised for a breakout season.
No, the level of talent isn't in question at UA. And, no, the schedule isn't insurmountable, either. Getting Virginia Tech and Texas A&M back-to-back is a rough way to open the season, but Alabama won't have to face any of the SEC East power programs, and cupcakes like Georgia State and Chattanooga are basically third and fourth bye weeks. Rather, the real question is how this team handles expectations. "Championship or bust" is a familiar slogan for Saban and Co., but living in that kind of pressure-packed atmosphere can prove difficult.
Alabama wasn't perfect a season ago: the secondary was shaky, the pass rush was inconsistent and there were times where the run-pass balance on offense looked out of whack. A heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M nearly derailed the Tide. But a bizarre weekend where No. 1 and No. 2 in the polls both lost cleared the way, and Alabama gladly picked up the slack. Will UA get so lucky again? Or will this team take fate out of the equation, learn from its mistakes and realize its potential?
*Five wins vacated in 2007
Well, technically speaking. Nick Saban isn't ready to stop teaching.
"Now, even though the players are moving out of the dorm, camp doesn’t really end, to me, until camp ends," the Tide's demanding head coach told reporters on Thursday. "And camp really doesn’t end to me until school starts. And school doesn’t really start to where they’ve got school stuff until next week. So we’ll continue with our meetings and all the things that we do and kind of go from there."
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Alabama players report today and begin practicing under the direction of coach Nick Saban and the staff tomorrow. To get you ready for all the action, here's a piece-by-piece look at some areas and players to watch.
Making their move
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No. 27 Nick Perry
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Geno Smith came on like a bullet last season, and it appears his momentum won't slow down anytime soon. The former four-star prospect earned playing time late last season as a freshman, and he should be in line for a starting job this fall. He had a strong showing during spring practice, aided by the absence of senior John Fulton who was sidelined with a turf toe injury. Smith will start alongside Deion Belue, who was picked on for much of this past season -- his first at Alabama.
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Projecting Impact Teams in 2015 Recruiting
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35